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Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 21st, 2011, 5:03 pm
by kingrat
Safe in Hell (1932) had me from the very opening, when the phone rang and scantily clad Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) answered, "Yeah?" Persecuted by her ex-lover's wife, Gilda has drifted into prostitution, but things will quickly get worse. This film isn't just pre-Code, it's pre-noir. Soon, Gilda's on the lam to a Caribbean island which has no extradition treaty. There, however, she's lusted after by the other criminals who've escaped there.

Dorothy Mackaill gives an outstanding performance in a role that has many different moods and emotions to convey. lzcutter's fave William Wellman does a great job directing, whether it's partial glimpses of the faces of Gilda and her true-blue sailor boyfriend behind slats of wood in the ship's hold or the pan shot of all the sleazy guys waiting in their chairs for Gilda to come downstairs or the close-up of Gilda late in the film with only her neck in the light, to mention only a few examples. Wellman's joy in directing comes through strongly, and this helps to balance the gloom of much of the story. There's a surprising amount of humor along the way, too. You have to admire Wellman's presentation of two African-American actors, too, who create rounded characters. Not only is Nina Mae McKinney attractive, charming, and funny, she can imitate Louis Armstrong singing "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." Clarence Muse, who plays the porter Newcastle, is co-author of that song.

Having loved Mackaill in Safe in Hell, next I tried Love Affair (1932), which starred her opposite that promising young leading man, Humphrey Bogart. Alas, a half-baked script and weak direction by Thornton Freeland gave Mackaill no help at all. The movie seems to begin as a romantic comedy about a madcap heiress who falls who falls for an aeronautics engineer who's working as an airplane mechanic (that's our pal Bogart), then turns serious drama, getting lost in a subplot about Bogey's kid sister gone bad. Three Wise Girls mixes comedy, drama, and social comment in an agreeable way; Love Affair shows what happens when some of the same elements remain separate and lumpy. Director Freeland is tone-deaf, perhaps because he doesn't recognize where the problem areas lie. In fairness to all concerned, this B movie was no doubt swiftly written and shot to get product out the door.

Bogart is playing a romantic lead. As one of you noted, he's young, slender, and he has hair. Still, if you look at this film, you can understand why an executive might think the guy had little future as a leading man. In the big scene where Bogart learns the truth about his sister, Freeland has no idea how to help the actors, and Bogart actually puts his hands over his ears. Oy.

I know that Dorothy Mackaill had an extensive career in silent films and then her career went downhill in the thirties. Are there other films that particularly show off her talent, or fail to? Safe in Hell shows a very talented actress. Hollywood doesn't seem to have known how to use her. Of course that's also true of Nina Mae McKinney, for different reasons.

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 22nd, 2011, 3:20 am
by intothenitrate
I was also completely won over by Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell. She's great. But at the same time, Wellman was on an absolute TEAR during those days at Warner Brothers, so maybe any leading lady caught up in that creative maelstrom would have come off pretty well. Love Affair has a number of reviewers over at IMDB rolling their eyes, but I'm still very curious to see it for myself.

BTW, her biography on Wikipedia has it that Mckaill retired from films in 1937 to "care for her aging mother," so maybe it wasn't a flame-out in the court of public opinion.

I'm with you, KR, I remain interested in seeing more of her work. Kept Husbands (1931) with Joel McCrea looks promising.

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 22nd, 2011, 3:48 pm
by feaito
Kingrat, I also enjoyed immensely "Safe in Hell". It's ONE great Precoder!

You should definitely check the Precoder mentioned by intothenitrate"Kept Husbands" (1931) with Joel McCrea and also "The Office Wife" (1930) in which she stars opposite Lewis Stone, Natalie Moorhead and Joan Blondell. She also has a supporting role in the only Lombard-Gable film "No Man of Her Own" (1932), available on DVD.

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 23rd, 2011, 12:54 pm
by moira finnie
For anyone who didn't have a chance to see Safe in Hell, it will be repeated on TCM on Thursday, June 9th, at 08:30 AM (EDT)

I really liked Mackaill's performance in Safe in Hell and the addition of Clarence Muse and Nora Mae McKinney in substantial parts made this unsavory but fascinating film more interesting than I expected. I also liked her opposite an impossibly young Humphrey Bogart in Love Affair. Even if the movie was fairly feeble, she was able to convey a certain madcap verve that the film needed badly. I wish TCM could show The Barker (1928), a partial talkie featuring the actress, Milton Sills and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. that UCLA is reported to have restored. When that film opened in New York, the critics praised her and the rest of the cast a great deal. In some of her later films, such as Bright Lights (1929), an early talkie that also tried to incorporate Technicolor effects, she was singled out for praise but the film's technical problems (it was reportedly out of focus for much of the time) and the backstage cliches weighed the movie down, despite her game attempt to play her role under the direction of none other than Michael Curtiz. Here's a number from the show, with Dorothy Mackaill cross-dressing (paging Miss Dietrich?) and singing "I'm Just a Man About Town" like the enthusiastic jazz baby she apparently was [no Technicolor prints of this film appear to have survived]:

I am not sure that Dorothy Mackaill left films unwillingly. She was awfully busy getting married and unhitched, and seemed to be "quite social." Married and divorced from director Lothar Mendes in the mid-twenties, she married Neil Miller, a nightclub and radio singer who was also a plantation overseer in Hawaii in 1931. That marriage ended in 34, when she took a leap of faith the final time with Harold Patterson, a union that lasted until '38. Mackaill had previously been linked publicly with John McCormick, a producer (and the former husband of Colleen Moore), Walter Byron, an English actor, and Horace Hough, an assistant director.

She was also a frequent traveling companion to Marion Davies in the '30s, who had become her friend in their Ziegfeld Follies days. After 70 movies, with a good five year run from 1925-1930 when Mackaill was among the highest paid actresses at First National (averaging $16k a month at a time when personal income tax was relatively little) and turning 30 in the early 1930s, perhaps Mackaill just realized that her kind of movies were becoming a bit old-fashioned in the years of The Great Depression? In an interview she gave in 1930, some of which was quoted in Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women, Mackaill seems to have been extremely outspoken--which of course was probably not going to win her any friends in the increasingly corporate and image-minded Hollywood establishment. Here are some samples of her tart-tongued comments, (I'll try to transcribe more later):

"The modern girl is like Lindbergh, built for speed. We have tremendous vitality of body and complete emancipation of mind. None of the old taboos...mean a damn to us. We don't care."

"What's inside--the character stuff--has a way of coming out," she once said of screen acting.

On sex: "It is a well-known fact that during a war and immediately after one, sex life is increased and emphasized...on the part of boys and girls everywhere."

"Give a modern girl a job and she's all set and all right. Give her nothing to do but smoke cigarettes, loll about the house, play bridge, and think about sex--and no one would dare answer for the results."

"In order to be sophisticated, fledglings turn to their primer, the movies."

" be called a nice girl is to be blasphemed and socially undone."

"Rich women marry poor men for happiness. The newest rights of woman and one of the most popular, most frequently exercised, is the--shall we say purchase?--of a husband who is on the market because he is poor."

The last professional items I found indicated that the actress had been slated to appear in a Broadway musical Say When with Bob Hope. That show played in the 1934-1935 season on Broadway, but without Dorothy, though I haven't been able to find out why.

Though most sources say she retired to help her mother, she doesn't seem to have been impoverished, despite an investigation into her taxes in 1929 that led to the conviction of Mackaill's tax advisor. Also, when Mackaill died in 1990, she did so in the luxury of her room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, where she had lived since 1955.

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 23rd, 2011, 3:13 pm
by kingrat
Moira, thanks for the information about this fascinating woman. Thanks also to feaito and intothenitrate for suggestions about other Mackaill films to investigate.

I can easily imagine Dorothy playing either Joan Crawford or Joan Blondell roles, and if the timing had been right, she'd have made quite a noir dame.

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 23rd, 2011, 6:46 pm
by intothenitrate
Ditto on the gratitude, Moira! I'm all the more smitten with DM now.

I've been looking forward to getting some films from a collector recommended to me by our Fossy for some time now. After combing through thousands of titles, I had pretty much made my choices except for one. When this thread started up, I searched the list again and saw two titles, the afore-mentioned Love Affair and another called The Flirting Widow (1930). I went ahead and requested that one, and will write about it after it comes in. (I think you can imagine how geeked-up I am about it).

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 23rd, 2011, 7:03 pm
by feaito
Great post Moira, thanks for sharing -as usual-!!

And Kingrat, I hope you'll be able to watch more DM films!!

Intothenitrate, we'll be waiting for your views on The Flirting Widow...

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 25th, 2011, 5:01 pm
by MichiganJ
I liked Mackaill in Safe in Hell a lot, too. And was also surprised at how the story concluded. Gotta love pre-codes.

I'm not sure how many Mackaill silents survive. The only one I have is Shore Leave (1925) in which she stars with Richard Barthelmess. Good, but not great film (one of Barthelmess' favorites though), and Mackaill's character is a far-cry from Safe in Hell's Gilda.

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 28th, 2011, 4:44 am
by intothenitrate
Just one little update. I was rewatching the TCM documentary Complicated Women about the actresses and films of the pre-code era. When the narrative gets to the part when the code begins to be vigorously enforced in 1934, it shows a photo of the "outspoken" Dorothy Mackaill and a few seconds from Safe In Hell. The suggestion is that some actresses who were preeminent in the pre-code era sustained damage to their careers after July '34. The point is emphasized by a clip from the Ann Harding film The Flame Within (1935), when Harding, a psychiatrist, agrees to give up her profession to be a good little wife to Herbert Marshall in the final scene. Staged to be a "happy ending" from the standpoint of reactionary morality, the documentary points to Harding's handling of the scene, suggesting that she was telegraphing to the audience the tragedy of the new crackdown.

I'll have to track down my copy of LaSalle's book (by the same name) and see if he provides any more detail about DM's career at this point. Was she a casualty of the code in the way some actors were casualties of the microphone five years earlier?

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 28th, 2011, 7:21 pm
by feaito
Complicated Women, Dangerous Men and Sin in Soft Focus are my Bibles Re. The Production Code!! The Complicated Women Documentary should be available on DVD...or is it?

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: March 31st, 2011, 7:58 am
by JackFavell
What a great thread - thanks intothenitrate for leading me here.

I don't know much about Dorothy Mackaill - I tend to know the names of stars through picture books that belonged to my family when I was growing up, rather than from seeing them in films - I've always thought Dorothy Mackaill a fascinating subject from her photos, and also because I am drawn to precodes and their stars, the more obscure the better. Her complete disappearance after 1935-ish makes her a great find. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for starting a thread about her - now I KNOW I want to watch Safe in Hell when it appears in June, and other DM films.

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: April 3rd, 2011, 7:17 am
by intothenitrate
Well, I've watched The Flirting Widow (1930) twice now--once to see it, and once to see what I saw.

We often talk about the 1929-1930 season of cinema as the "filmed play" period, and this film is a perfect example. I found myself reminded of the Marion Davies vehicle Not So Dumb made the same year. I'm not saying this is a bad thing---it is what it is. As a matter of fact, I've developed an odd predilection for these often awkward productions. And as with Davies in NSD, Dorothy Mackaill makes this a lovable film, exuding a delightful, personal warmth...while the rest of the cast is still projecting over the footlights.

The plot is good staple-fare from the romantic comedy food-group, with just enough misunderstandings to twist and untwist in the space of seventy-two minutes. Mackaill plays Celia, the eldest of three daughters in an aristocratic English family. The middle daughter, played by shiny-object Leila Hyams, has married well to a young lord, currently stationed in India. The youngest daughter is head over heels in love with a well-groomed chap and the two want to marry...quite urgently. Their main obstacle is *gasp* the potential social embarrassment of having a younger daughter getting married while an older daughter is still single.

Celia (Mckaill) has pity on her kid sister and makes up a story, saying that while she was away recently, she met and became engaged to an army SMITH. This sends all of the Faraday girls into fits of delight, and they insist that Celia write her fiance a love letter right away so it can be sent off along with Leila Hyam's letter to her man. Celia humors them by writing a letter to "Wobbles"--her pet name for her fictitious lover--with no intention of actually posting it. Can you guess what happens next, my dears?

The scene cuts to an impossibly young Basil Rathbone, an army colonel stationed in Bagdad named John Smith. He's holding the letter with a priceless look on his face.

Meanwhile, Celia and her aunt (who's been apprised of the deception) go to the Times and submit an obituary for Col. John Smith, putting the finishing touches on their scheme.

The rest of the film takes place at the Faraday mansion. Rathbone arrives to deliver a few mementos belonging to the "deceased" to the surprised Celia. It then becomes a highly mannered cat-and-mouse game between the two principals, underscored by an insistent romantic attraction.

As you can imagine, the ending is much happier than Safe in Hell. This whetted my appetite to see more of Mckaill's films. The Flirting Widow, while perhaps slight, provides a window into Mckaill's star treatment. She doesn't appear until after a good ten minutes of build-up. The players at bridge are talking about her virtues. The young lovers in the next room are ruminating about her being single. When she makes her entrance, it's from behind a door swinging open, revealing her in a mannish outfit--school-tie and hair slicked back. Later on, she appears with her hair done--about like it was in SIH, and wearing a stunning dress.

While the supporting actors often work crammed into a tableaux, posing and reacting, the close-ups are reserved for Mckaill. And does she deliver! The camera loves her, and she lets the thoughts and emotions play across her face in a natural, intimate way. I don't think it was intentionally staged this way, but you get the feeling that she's the only human being operating in a field of automatons. (With the exception of Rathbone, of course).

A last point of interest is liguistical. The story is set in England. One of the characters is a sort of moneyed buffoon-- all "what ho" and "good show." The other players affect varying degrees of "English-ness." Leila Hyams works in that register invented by the Hollywood diction coaches. Rathbone is the real deal. But Mckaill, who was born in England, sounds the most American of them all--not in a vulgar way--but with a beautiful diction that lands squarely in the middle of the two phonologies. The tone of her voice is wonderful too--despite the inherently tinny quality of early recording technology. It's easy to see why she was so highly prized during this transitional period.

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: April 3rd, 2011, 8:01 am
by feaito
Thanks for the thorough account on the film intothenitrate, it sounds interesting...Leilya Hyams is another of my favorite ladies of the Early Thirties period (Freaks, Way for a Sailor, Island of Lost Souls, Red-Headed Woman, Big House, Ruggles of Red Gap).

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: April 3rd, 2011, 11:17 am
by intothenitrate
When I watched Island of Lost Souls years ago, long before I got to like classic films at large, I remember being really struck by her look--that 30's bob with the Marcel wave, and the small-brimmed, close fitting cap. I wonder if that initial infatuation is what got me hooked into the early thirties period in general.

Re: Dorothy Mackaill films

Posted: April 3rd, 2011, 11:25 am
by feaito
Leila Hyams is one of the most beautiful women in pictures, of all-time....she's perfect! And besides, she's talented :wink: